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Pilgrimage Mass: Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

I sometimes wonder why St. Francis is so popular, so universally loved.  Almost everything he did was pretty much what most of us don’t want to do!

Think of it: many of Francis’ contemporaries thought he was a fool, and who wants to be thought a fool!  And Francis embraced the most radical sort of poverty and, again, who wants to be that poor!  And, then, Francis embraced the gospel of peace in quite a literal way, and who of us does that!

So why is St. Francis so universally loved?  I asked that question of some friends the other day and the answer they came up with was this: because he is so Christ-like.  That works for me!  Our attraction to St. Francis is a little like our attraction to Christ.  We know we will always fall short – very short! – when it comes to being like Christ, but that doesn’t keep us from loving him and wanting to be like him.

And I think we are also attracted to the human side - and even to the human quirks - of St. Francis.  We like the fact that as a young man, he enjoyed the finer things of life – nice clothes, rich food, abundant drink, having fun - cavorting and carousing.  We like that.  And we like the fact that Francis was very much himself and did some fairly shocking – if not outrageous - things at times – like stripping off his clothes in the bishop’s house – right in front of his disapproving father and a whole lot of, I’m sure, very surprised people!  How else was he going to convince them that he had changed!  We like that kind of in-your-face behavior. In moderation!

And we like the fact that St. Francis was approachable, down-to-earth, and that he spoke the language of the common folk – another way of saying that  we like Francis in the same way that we like – no, love – our Christmas creches.  Christmas manger scences were his creation, after all – his idea.  Francis knew how to get people’s attention, to teach them what it meant for Jesus to have been born poor in an animal shelter.  A picture – or in this case, a stable – was worth a thousand words.

And we like the fact that St. Francis liked animals – made friends with animals, and even preached to them – including those lucky swallows and crows (who would sometimes drown out his sermons), not to mention that murderous wolf of Gubbio who, when Francis charmed him with his smile and gentle words,  had a change of heart and became meek as a lamb.

And we like the fact that St. Francis was willing to take his life in his hands for what he believed in - as he did when he went to visit the Sultan of Egypt.  The Crusades were on, and the Sultan had put a price on the head of every Christian.  That didn’t stop Francis.  He boldly crossed the battle lines, was taken prisoner, and when he was brought before the Sultan, utterly charmed him by the humility and love in his heart.

And, of course, we like St. Francis because of the deep reverence and awe he had for God’s creation.  His Canticle of the Sun in which he praises brother sun, sister moon, brother fire, sister water, mother earth – speaks to us in a profound way and awakens us to the glories of creation as well as to the glories of the Creator.  In a world that is suffering from all the ways we have recklessly and selfishly exploited and plundered it, we find in St. Francis our inspiration, our patron, our hope. 

And we like St. Francis because, like Jesus, he not only loved the poor, he actually became poor himself, and found his joy in having nothing and hanging out with the poor.  We love the stories of St. Francis kissing the leper in the same way we love the gospel stories of Jesus reaching out, touching, and healing the leper.

My friends, I think it’s entirely true that we love St. Francis because he was so much like Christ.  He even received and carried about in his own body the wounds of Christ – so closely identified did he become with Christ.

As we pray today at his tomb, may the 800 years that separate us slip away and may we feel the same kind of closeness to him that he felt with Christ.  And even though so many of the daring and difficult things he did are pretty much things we really don’t want to do, may our encounter with St. Francis in this place made holy by his life and his death, fire up the fool in us – the fool who will be willing to let go, throw caution to the winds, and take Christ at his word!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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